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The firing of Clay Helton makes a clear statement: USC wants a national title

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History will remember Clay Helton as USC’s accidental head coach. He served twice as the interim before being hired full time. He was the coach who kept sticking around, as the confluence of winning just enough and getting a preposterous contract by an incompetent athletic director enabled him to be the coaching version of a sitcom neighbor who kept hanging around.

Even from the beginning of Helton’s tenure at USC, the end was always in sight. Even after winning the Rose Bowl during the 2016 season and the Pac-12 the next year, there was more focus on the limitations than the potential. Helton was a very good coach who finished with a 46-24 record.

Time and again, Helton reminded USC fans, the USC brass and the college football world that he didn’t have the chops, the charisma and coaching acumen to replicate the relentless winning that Pete Carroll conjured in Los Angeles. And finally, USC had its house in order enough to end a tenure that in many ways felt like a long interim stint.

Helton never once showed the promise of developing into a national championship-caliber coach, and USC made a bold mid-September proclamation that it's now in the market for one.

Helton getting fired was almost always considered a “when” proposition, not an “if” proposition for his entire tenure there. Rival coaches prayed he’d stick around, as they knew he’d never maximize USC's power.

And the timing of this firing, coming the second week of September, is a sign that athletic director Mike Bohn, entering his second full season as AD, wasn’t going to put up with the same listless, penalty-filled and uninspiring performances. 

“We provided every resource necessary for our football program to compete for national championships,” Bohn said in a statement. He added: “I want to be exceptionally clear: our university and its leadership are committed to winning national championships and restoring USC football to glory.”

USC coach Clay Helton walks off the field after a loss to the Stanford Cardinal at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. Helton was fired by USC on Monday. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)
USC coach Clay Helton walks off the field after a loss to the Stanford Cardinal at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. Helton was fired by USC on Monday. (Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

USC officials feel this season can still be saved in the wake of an emasculation by 17-point underdog Stanford, 42-28, on Saturday night. They named dynamic recruiter Donte Williams as the interim head coach, a move likely to preserve a 2022 recruiting class that’s No. 5 in Rivals.com average star rating. They’ll pay Helton more than $10 million to leave, which is big money no matter how much money you have.

The reason why USC waited this long to fire Helton runs parallel to the reason why USC football has generally existed outside the realm of national relevancy — other than a juicy collection of scandals — basically since 2009.

USC’s overall administrative incompetence undercut football, failing to allow it to grow with places like Alabama, Oklahoma and Ohio State. USC invested in completely unprepared leaders instead of football upgrades.

The back-to-back AD regimes of Pat Haden and Lynn Swann set the program back well over a decade, defined by the surplus of federal investigations and the atrophy of relevant football. Swann was run out of the office after handing Helton a contract that made it financially impossible to fire him. So the inevitable just kept getting delayed.

After the NCAA scandals of Carroll, the immaturity of Lane Kiffin and implosion of Steve Sarkisian, Helton was the adult in the room the embarrassed program needed to polish its sullied image. (Don’t forget that interim Ed Orgeron refused to coach in the bowl game in 2013 because he was so angry he didn’t get hired, the employment decision of taking the ball and going home.) USC needed an adult, it needed a face of competence and it needed some dignity. Helton provided all of that.

Eventually at a place like USC, winning becomes the priority again. And that’s something Helton didn’t do enough. After going 5-7 and 8-5 in 2018 and 2019, USC couldn’t afford to fire Helton. So when Bohn came in during November 2019 as things were flailing, he took the patient route. He couldn’t rally the more than $20 million required to fire Helton at that time, and he didn’t know precisely the program’s flaws to make a hire in that cycle.

Now the flaws on the field and within the walls of the athletic department are obvious. USC can’t score in the red zone, is consistently among the nation’s leaders in penalties and the Trojans don't look like a synchronized and energized program. The Helton clean-up, eventually, needed to be cleaned up. USC’s preseason buzz, at this point, came mostly from Helton’s status on the hot seat.

The firing opens what’s supposed to be one of the best jobs in college sports. Bohn has upgraded Helton’s on-field staff, invested significantly off the field in support staff and gone a long way in two seasons to upgrade and modernize a program that desperately needs it.

Two weeks into the season, USC made a statement that it needs change and wants to be more competitive nationally. The Trojans have never been a serious contender for the College Football Playoff and haven’t maximized a brand that registered as one of the elites in the sport a decade ago.

Eventually, the diminishing returns needed to be addressed. Clay Helton went from a coach who helped USC move on to one they couldn’t overcome.